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Is the death penalty worse than life in the hole?

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Last week, a bill to end the death penalty in Colorado squeaked through the House of Representatives by one vote; it reaches a Senate committee on Wednesday afternoon, April 29. The abolitionists maintain that execution is too costly and time-consuming and that the money could be better spent funding a statewide unit to investigate the 1,400 unsolved murders in Colorado over the past forty years.For more on the basic "trade vengeance for justice" argument, see Jessica Centers' 2008 feature "A Cure for the Common Cold Case" and an April 7 blog featuring Howard Morton, who leads an organization called Homicide Victims and Missing Persons.

Still, a lot of the talking points in the death-penalty debate have little to do with the tax dollars spent -- more than $30 million in the last decade -- trying to persuade juries and appeals judges to give the state's lethal injection chamber a customer or two. The pro-death argument seems to be that truly heinous crimes require truly heinous punishment, whether that penalty is a deterrent to others or not (it's not, according to most researchers). That got us thinking: Is execution truly the ultimate penalty available under current law? Or is a lifetime in solitary confinement an even more miserable fate?

For clues to those questions, listen to the experts -- meaning people who've actually been in one situation or the other. Or, ideally, both.

Colorado doesn't have a death row, technically. Nathan Dunlap and Sir Mario Owens, the two inmates currently facing death sentences, are housed in different units in the Colorado State Penitentiary, but both are under 23-hour lockdown -- in the hole, as prisoners say. Dunlap has reportedly had ill effects from his long confinement there, and that kind of treatment certainly didn't suit the only man executed in Colorado in the last four decades, Gary Davis.

As reported in my 1997 piece on Davis's trip to the death chamber, "The Killer Inside Him," he made efforts to speed up his demise because life in CSP was driving him around the bend. "I have already contacted a lawyer about putting a stop to my appeals," he wrote a friend in 1990. "It has NOTHING to do with being chicken. I don't think a chicken could do it. [But] sitting in this little square hole for a decade isn't my bag of tea. I was raised in the outdoors and this is really getting to me... I don't want a natural life in here."

Prisoners facing long stretches of solitary confinement, with few or no privileges, have on occasion suggested that death would be preferable. Thomas Silverstein, the subject of my 2007 feature "The Caged Life," has spent almost 26 years in the most profound isolation imaginable, including the last four at the federal supermax in Florence. Silverstein killed a guard at Marion, on what was then the highest-security unit in the federal system. The feds had no death penalty for such a crime back then, so solitary was the only alternative.

But Silverstein doesn't think the government did him any favors. He's described his experience in the hole as "a slow constant peeling of the skin, stripping of the flesh, the nerve-wracking sound of water dripping from a leaky faucet in the still of the night while you're trying to sleep... It's actually more humane to execute someone than it is to torture them, year, after year, after year."

Of course, Silverstein, who's now suing the Bureau of Prisons over the conditions of his confinement (see the follow-up blog, "24 Years of Solitude, Then the Lawsuit"), has a vested interest in making solitary sound as bad as possible. And while everyone convicted of first-degree murder gets life without parole. there's no guarantee that life will be spent in the confines of a place like CSP. But state authorities certainly have the ability to designate the highest level of lockdown for the formerly executable. The real question is whether a life of high tedium and bad food in a small, cheerless room is still better than no life at all. Or, to put it another way, whether a few decades with only your loathesome self as company could be viewed by even the most cold-blooded among us as a fate worse than death.

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